Preventive Measures in the 1918 Influenza Pandemic

The 1918 influenza pandemic, also known as the Spanish flu, infected approximately 500 million people and killed anywhere from 17-100 million over a period of two years. For the duration of the pandemic, Americans utilized various measures to slow the spread of the virus. There were no antivirals at the time, or antibiotics to treat any subsequent conditions after an influenza infection. As a result, most public health operations were directed at prevention. (CDC)

In September 1918, the second wave began and would prove to be the most fatal period of the pandemic. Cities closed down large gathering places and prohibited all public gatherings. Stores were encouraged to limit the amount of occupants in their stores, and citizens were asked to walk instead of taking public transportation when possible. Most cities had experienced significant losses by December 1918 when health officials issued directives to beware the “dangers of coughing and sneezing; careless disposal of ‘nasal discharges’.” (CDC) Many people were concerned with nasal discharges and also spit, as shown in the poster.  Additionally, Dr. W.A. Evans issued advice on spit to a concerned subscriber in his column “How to Keep Well”. Streetcars in Philadelphia sported signs reading, “spit spreads death.” ( (See pictures below)

Some places ended their public health measures very quickly. San Francisco did take the extra step in forcing all people to wear masks when in public. However, this prompted an outcry from the city and even led to the formation of an organization known as the Anti-Mask League of San Francisco. Soon after, the ordinance was repealed and people were free to not wear masks. Public health officials and concerned citizens resorted to social pressure to increase compliance with the masks. ( Also, Seattle lifted gathering restrictions after only six weeks. 15 year old Violet Harris remarked in her diary, “The ban was lifted to-day. No more …. masks. Everything open too. ‘The Romance of Tarzan’ is on at the Coliseum [movie theater] as it was about 6 weeks ago. I’d like to see it awfully. …. School opens this week—Thursday! Did you ever? As if they couldn’t have waited till Monday!” (Smithsonian Diaries) She doesn’t remark on the implications of the city’s reopening for the pandemic. Rather, she is excited to go back to the movie theater, and unhappy to go back to school. It is unknown how much of a priority young people placed on socializing over preventing the flu’s spread.

Streetcar with sign reading "spit spreads death" in 1918

Additional source: ‘Mask Slackers’ and ‘Deadly’ Spit: The 1918 Flu Campaigns to Shame People Into Following New Rules

Primary Sources

“Immigrant workers have borne the brunt of covid-19 outbreaks at meatpacking plants” The Washington Post.

“Covid-19 has forced a radical shift in working habits” The Economist.

The article from The Washington Post, dated May 22, details the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on immigrant workers in meatpacking plants. These plants were hotspots for the virus at the time, and the majority of workers are immigrants. A meatpacking job is essential; it is crucial to the food supply chain. It is also not one that can be accomplished from home. Jobs like these have to be done, and it is usually disadvantaged people who are forced to do them, in this case immigrants. This article can provide insight on the limitations of switching to virtual workplaces with the aim of stopping the virus’ spread. It also has parallels with numerous workers’ rights issues throughout American history. These labor issues might be relevant in my research as I investigate the transition from physical workspaces to virtual ones.

The Economist article, printed on September 12, analyzes the outcome the world’s lockdown, specifically related to workplaces. The article takes an editorial stance; it declares that virtual workspaces are a success. It does provide data for both sides of the argument, such as workers’ happiness and productivity levels. I want to investigate the feasibility and likelihood of humanity eventually shifting itself mostly to a virtual world. I will discuss social media, online shopping as the beginning, and very realistic virtual reality as an end. This article about working from home is perfect because it is somewhere in the middle, and it is the biggest step that people have ever taken towards moving their lives online. The article doesn’t provide many answers, but it does pose some crucial questions. The most significant insight I got was that the reason offices did not previously transition online is because it is very costly to do so, and coronavirus has been the catalyst.

The Virtual World

Here, two people attend the funeral of a relative via video chat to remain socially distanced. The funeral picture is rather grim, but it is the only one that represented the theme of people participating virtually in events previously attended in person. My research will investigate all of the domains in which human interaction has been moved to the Internet. The most important one will be the workplace. It is likely that working from home will soon be more popular than working in the office. In the United States it is expected that those who are able to work from are doing so because the virus is rampant. However, in countries where the virus is under control, such as Germany, 74% of workers are now back in the office, but only half of them go to the office every day. Additionally, some companies, such as Pinterest, have completely ended the leases on their offices (The Economist) Others maintain workspaces and are even providing incentives to get their employees to come back to the office. It is unclear whether the trend of virtual connection will continue, but it has certainly proved to be possible. Some studies have suggested increased happiness due to working from home, such as one from the American Economic Review that found employees were willing to accept 8% less salary to work from home (The Economist). I hope to gain insight as to what extent workplaces become virtual, what these future workplaces will look like, and the farther reaching effects like the fate of potentially obsolete office spaces in downtown areas.

A main theme that seems interesting is humanity’s general shift from the physical world to the virtual one. Since the Internet was invented, some in person communication has shifted to phone calls, video chat, and texting. Socialization occurs on apps. Single people are increasingly meeting romantic partners on dating apps rather than in physical places. Sports lovers can experience competition via video games. Virtual reality makes these games very realistic, and one day they could even prove to be indistinguishable from the real thing. People have showed little hesitation to inhabit the virtual world. I am very interested in how this trend will affect both humanity’s near and distant futures.

The Economist, “The future of the office” September 12, 2020.


The subjects of these pictures are an electric lamp, an electric guitar, and my home street in Manayunk. The lamp, guitar, and street each represent the concept of time because they are examples of technology evolving to better suit humanity’s needs. The lamp and guitar are both more sophisticated versions of their original designs, while the street is an obsolete design that is no longer functional for modern society. The electric lamp originated from archaic forms of light, such as candles and oil lamps. It, along with electric light in general, has allowed people to drastically extend the time in their day. This has had both good and bad consequences on society. While longer hours in the day have allowed for more productivity, they have also allowed for exploitation of the working class. Starting in the industrial revolution, the existence of electric light meant employers could further take advantage of their employees by forcing them to work extra hours. The electric guitar, on the other hand, has not had any downsides as harsh. It enabled performers to play for much larger crowds, as its sound can be spread much farther than an acoustic guitar. This had a huge impact on popular culture, as the prominence of rock and roll throughout the second half of the 20th century arguable would not have been possible without its invention. Lastly, my street is very narrow. It was built in the mid-1800s when the rest of the neighborhood was built. Because cars did not exist until the early 1900s, the streets were designed for horses and pedestrians. Now, they are mostly one-way and too narrow for street parking. My street is even too narrow for any vehicle larger than a mid-size sedan. While a slight inconvenience, I am reminded of life in 19th century every time I step outside.

Why Study History?

My name is John Rowe. I am a senior majoring in mathematical economics. I take classes in history because it has always been my favorite subject since elementary school. I remember taking my history textbook home after school and reading through random chapters for fun. I take history to improve my critical thinking, reading, writing, and research skills. I am taking this class as part of a minor in history, and I hope it will help me with my research and writing skills, particularly presenting organized and cohesive arguments that utilize evidence.

 I may pursue a career in law so history will help me with all of the skills I need for that career, and it will help my research-based writing skills arguably more than any other subject. No matter what my career path however, a history education will prove to be valuable. History is not just about what happened, but the reasons behind what happened. I believe at least a few prominent historians and other academics have made statements similar to saying, “history repeats itself”. This insight is the reason why studying history is so important. History is like a cycle. The same things happen repeatedly, just dressed up a little differently. With the study of history comes a sort of wisdom. Because things throughout human history have happened so similarly, studying the past gives insight into the future. A history education has the potential to enable an otherwise inexperienced person to make decisions as well as somebody with the experience of many lifetimes. History is understanding the aggregate of humanity’s processes in order to inform the future.